Seattle is no stranger to the pouring rain. And as it continued to come down hard, Jake Diekman stood on a stage just behind second base at Safeco Field. Speaking to over 900 faces in the crowd, with his new wife Amanda among them, Diekman accepted the 53rd Hutch Award this past Wednesday, given annually to “an active Major League Baseball (MLB) player who ‘best exemplifies the fighting spirit and competitive desire’ of Fred Hutchinson, by persevering through adversity.”
And believe me, to say Diekman persevered through adversity would be an understatement. After a 20 year battle with ulcerative colitis, the left-handed reliever opted to risk it all to be free of the disease. This entailed a three-part surgery to remove his colon and construct what is commonly known as a “J-Pouch”, a reservoir made up of a portion of the small intestine to allow the patient to voluntarily store and pass stool.
Diekman has always been an advocate for those suffering from Inflammatory Bowel Disease (IBD). Through his Gut It Out Foundation, he has helped many suffering from Crohn’s Disease and Colitis. But when he chose to go down the surgical path, there was no guarantee he would able to pitch at such a high level again. Risking his livelihood, he followed through with the process that required him to live with a temporary ileostomy, a surgical opening that brings part of the small intestine out over the skin on the stomach in order to pass stool, as he healed from each surgery. And after holding his breath for six months, Diekman returned to the mound this past August. In limited action, a mere 10.2 innings pitched, the Nebraska native demonstrated that he still had what it takes to compete at the Major League level, notching 13 strikeouts and a 2.53 ERA.
With his health issues finally behind him, Diekman is poised to have a big year in 2018 as an integral part of the Texas Rangers’ bullpen. Originally drafted by the Philadelphia Phillies in the 30th round of the 2007 MLB Draft, Diekman climbed through Philly’s minor league ranks and reached the Majors in 2012. With a career 2.97 FIP as a Phillie, the left-hander was shipped off to Texas in the Cole Hamels deal back in 2015. Hamels and Diekman joined the Rangers, while Matt Harrison, Nick Williams, Jorge Alfaro, Jake Thompson, Alec Asher, and Jerad Eickhoff were sent back to the Phillies.
Diekman had struggled prior to his trade to Texas, posting the worst numbers of his career: a 5.05 ERA and a WHIP of 1.75 in only 36.3 innings. After arriving down south, he regained his old form and provided the Rangers with 21.2 innings of lights-out relief. He followed 2015 with a strong 2016, becoming one of Texas’ most reliable assets out of the bullpen.
With his contributions from last August, Diekman’s time as a Texas Ranger has been very productive. In parts of three years as a Ranger, Diekman has appeared in 103 games, tossed 85.1 innings, struck out 92 batters, and posted an ERA of 2.95 and a WHIP of 1.13, both above average numbers. Keep in mind everything prior to 2017 was spent battling a life-altering condition.
To be free of ulcerative colitis sets Diekman’s ceiling even higher and with free agency looming, now is the time for the left-hander to demonstrate what he is fully capable of. Given the shelf life of most relievers, Diekman’s upcoming foray into free agency will probably be the most lucrative of his career, and with some of his contemporaries like Jake McGee (three years, $27 million), Joe Smith (two years, $15 million), Bryan Shaw (three years, $27 million), and Addison Reed (two years, $16.75 million) scoring big bucks, it is imperative for him to put an exclamation point on 2018.
This is a talented Rangers team, but one that is retooling to a degree after they jettisoned ace Yu Darvish to the Los Angeles Dodgers last season. The Houston Astros are firmly entrenched at the top of this division, but that won’t stop Texas from challenging for an AL Wild Card spot. Diekman, along with Matt Bush and Keona Kela, make up the key arms in the bullpen. Alex Claudio slid into the closer’s role last season, but this is a ball club that is no stranger to shaking up their bullpen roles. Since the Rangers have yet to add any pieces to the bullpen, there is strong chance we seek Diekman finishing games and even recording saves in 2018.
Talking about his struggles and where his mind is at now, Diekman had this to say to Jeff Wilson of the Star-Telegram:
“A year ago I was six days away from getting surgery. I was super nervous. Now I’m not nervous at all about anything. Nothing really bothers me anymore. I feel great. I just get to live now.
“I really have nothing to worry about ever. Even when I came back, nothing really bothered me on the mound any more. I want to do the best I can possibly do, but it’s not life or death.”
We know that Diekman can perform at a high level. He did so as a Phillie, primarily in 2013, and through his entire career as a Texas Ranger. Thanks to his limited return last season, we can now put to bed all doubts about whether his surgeries would hurt his ability to pitch at a high level. Free from the disease that ruled his life, Jake Diekman is now poised to have one of the best years of his career in 2018.